Tag Archives: writing action

I’m writing a character who starts out fragile, but joins a band of adventurers and becomes increasingly better at defending herself, javing no othet choice. However, reading through your blog it seems like the gap between skill levels is wider than I thought. As in, it might not be worth it for someone to learn fighting unless they plan on throwing themselves into it. Would it be worth it for her to learn to fight marginally well, or should she focus on getting better at running away?

The question isn’t “should she learn to fight?”, it’s “how skilled do you expect her to be in a short period of time?”.

The answer to the question posed in the ask is both. She should focus on learning to fight and getting better at running away. Both are necessary survival skills. In fact, learning to run away is part of learning to fight. Learning to assess a situation to determine the threat level and decide when it is time to go. Learning to defuse situations to avoid a violent confrontation is also part of learning to fight.

Here’s the problem with the general outlook most people have on combat training. They think you’re learning to handle all the situations which come your way violently. That’s not it. You’re learning how to asses the situations to determine whether or not its within a range you can handle. The best warriors are the ones who know when to fight, when not to fight, when to call for backup, and when to leave.

Those skills are the ones she needs. It’s entirely possible to learn fighting as a defensive option when her other skills fall through. This is not someone who is going to be going at it with practiced swordsmen in a one on one duel, but might get good at cutting themselves free and learning how to create exits so they can find a safer position. They’re not particularly good at violence in the professional sense, but it works as a fallback when the situation grows desperate.

Combat is a skill set. With consistent practice she’ll get better at it and the more scenarios she’s thrown into then the faster she learns how to survive.

She’s going to spend a lot of time running away at first, which she will grow better at. Then, eventually, she’ll learn how to turn and fight. She’ll get better at that too as time passes. She’ll never be the equivalent of the team’s muscle, but that’s not the point. She may end up being a “fight only when I have to/last line of defense” character, but that works fine. I’m going to assume she has other skills she’s developed which are more useful to this merry band than her combat ability. Even if she doesn’t, she still works as a character. I mean, Merry and Pippen are some of the most beloved characters in The Lord of the Rings and they contribute almost nothing except moral support.

People play bards in Dungeons & Dragons. (Kidding, bard lovers, they’re awesome and can be incredibly deadly.)

The issues come when we start thinking a character needs to have certain qualities in order to be legitimate, rather than figuring out what their skill sets are and using those as the basis for how they solve problems.

Create a scenario and solve it based on what the character can do rather than what they can’t do. The assumption that a situation needs to be solved violently or that there’s only one outcome is faulty. Your story is in a character’s ability to problem solve, what the issue is and the way they went about finding a solution. Flattering your way out is just as legitimate as fighting, even more so as it draws less attention and creates fewer additional problems.

I’ve got a character who can do magic, but isn’t good enough to be a combat mage. She can’t really fight. When she and her friends were captured by giants, she was small enough to slip out through the cage bars. Since she wasn’t good at lockpicking and they were too far away to get help, she decided to go talk to the giants. The story evolved from there.

“If I can’t do X, what else can I do?”

That’s where the story is.

There are a variety of different skill ceilings with combat, levels of what you can do and can’t do. A person with a weekends self-defense training isn’t going to be tackling Navy Seals, but they’ll be better at identifying danger in their surroundings. They’ll be better at creating exits to so they can escape to safety. They may have a better chance when faced with danger.

You said it yourself, the point of this character training to fight isn’t so she can throw herself into the fray against seasoned combatants but to help her survive. Focus on that and keep track of her skill level versus that of her opponents.

-Michi

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How do you write a fight scene without becoming repetitive? I feel like it just sounds like “she did this then this then this.” Thanks so much!

I watch her as she fights. Her left leg flies through the air – a roundhouse – rolling into a spin. She misses, but I guess she’s supposed to. Her foot lands and launches her into a jump. Up she goes again, just as fast. The other leg pumps, high knee gaining altitude. The jumping leg tucks. Her body rolls midair, momentum carrying her sideways. She kicks. A tornado kick, they call it. The top of her foot slams into Rodrigo’s head, burying in his temple. Didn’t move back far enough, I guess.

His head, it snaps sideways like a ball knocked off a tee. Skull off the spine. His eyes roll back, and he slumps. Whole body limp. Legs just give out beneath him. He clatters to the sidewalk; wrist rolling off the curb.

She lands, making the full turn and spins back around. Her eyes are on his body. One foot on his chest. I don’t know if he’s alive. I don’t know if she cares. Nah, she’s looking over her shoulder. Looking at me.

The truth twists my gut. I should’ve started running a long time ago.

The first key to writing a good fight scene is to tell a story. The second key is having a grasp of combat rules and technique. The third is to describe what happens when someone gets hit. The fourth is to remember physics. Then, roll it all together. And remember: be entertaining.

If you find yourself in the “and then” trap, it’s because you don’t have a firm grasp of what exactly it is your writing. “He punched” then “She blocked” then “a kick” only gets you so far.

You’ve got to get a sense for shape and feeling, and a sense of motion. Take a page from the comic artist’s playbook and make a static image feel like it’s moving. Try to remember that violence is active. Unless your character is working with a very specific sort of soft style, they’re attacks are going to come with force. So, you’ve got to make your sentences feel like your hitting something or someone.

“Ahhh!” Mary yelled, and slammed her fist into the pine’s trunk. A sickening crack followed, then a whimper not long after.

Angie winced. “Feel better?”

Shaking out her hand, Mary bit her lip. Blood dripped from her knuckles, uninjured fingers gripping her wrist. She sniffed, loudly. “I…” she paused, “…no.”

“You break your hand?”

“I think so. Yeah.”

“Good,” Angie said. “Think twice next time before challenging a tree.”

Let your characters own their mistakes. If they hit something stupid in
anger, like a wall or a tree then let them have consequences.

Injury is part of combat. In the same way, “I should be running now” is. When the small consequences of physical activity invade the page, they bring reality with them.

People don’t just slug back and forth unless they don’t know how to fight, or their only exposure to combat is mostly movies or bloodsport like boxing. Either way, when one character hits another there are consequences. It doesn’t matter if they blocked it or even deflected it, some part of the force is going to be transitioned into them and some rebounds back at the person who attacked.

Your character is going to get hurt, and it’ll be painful. Whether that’s just a couple of bruises, a broken bone, or their life depends on how the fight goes.

However, this is fantasy. It is all happening inside our heads. Our characters are never in danger unless we say they are. They’ll never be hurt unless we allow it. A thousand ghost punches can be thrown and mean absolutely, utterly nothing at all to the state of the character. This is why it is all important to internalize the risks involved.

The writer is in charge of bringing a dose of reality into their fictional world. It is much easier to sell an idea which on some level mimics human behavior and human reactions. The ghost feels physical because we’ve seen it happen on television or relate to it happening to us when we get injured.

You’ve got five senses, use them. You know what it feels like to get injured. To be bruised. To fall down. To be out of breath. Use that.

Here’s something to take with you: when we fight, every technique brings us closer together. Unless it specifically knocks someone back. You need specific distances to be able to use certain techniques. There’s the kicking zone, the punching zone, and the grappling zone. It’s the order of operation, the inevitable fight progression. Eventually, two combatants will transition through all three zones and end up on the ground.

So, keep the zones in mind. If you go, “she punched, and then threw a roundhouse kick” that’s wrong unless you explain more. Why? Because if the character is close enough to throw a punch, then they’re too close to throw most kicks. The roundhouse will just slap a knee or a thigh against the other character’s ribs, and probably get caught. If you go, “she punched, rammed an uppercut into his stomach, and seized him by the back of the head”, then that’s right. You feel the fighters getting progressively closer together, which is how its supposed to work.

Use action verbs, and change them up. Rolled, rotated, spun, punched, kicked, slammed, rammed, jammed, whipped, cracked, etc.

You’ve got to sell it. You need to remember a human’s bodily limits, and place artificial ones. You need to keep track of injuries, every injury comes with a cost. Make sure they aren’t just trading blows forever.

I’ve seen advice that says fights all by themselves aren’t interesting. I challenge that assertion. If you’re good at writing action, then the sequence itself is compelling. You know when you are because it feels real. Your reader will tune out if it isn’t connecting, and the fight scene is a make or break for selling your fantasy. It is difficult to write or create engaging, well choreographed violence that a reader can easily follow and imagine happening.

-Michi

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Why stuntwomen are in more danger than men

Why stuntwomen are in more danger than men